While sipping on my third coffee, grateful that the buzz I was getting was considered legal, I couldn’t help but think about how coffee is made and the curious sequence of events that lead to the perfecting of the beverage now in my hands.
The more you learn about the steps required to produce a good, healthy cup of coffee, the more you begin to wonder how it is that we even have coffee today.
The apocryphal story of the little Native American girl accidentally spilling corn kernels into the fire and discovering popcorn makes sense. It’s a simple one-step process.
But from tree to cup it takes a staggering 15 steps to get you that perfect cup of coffee!
Even the road to sobriety only has 12 steps. The next time you rush through your morning cup before dashing off to work, spare a thought for each of the people involved in these 15 steps that made it possible.
The actual coffee bean (unroasted) is used to grow new coffee trees. Image credit: [boonsom] / Depositphotos.com
Growing coffee isn’t as simple as throwing a few seeds on the ground and coming back a few years later.
Our journey from seed to cup actually doesn’t even start in the field where the coffee plants will eventually grow. Once harvested, some of the green coffee beans are kept to be used as seeds for the next crop of coffee trees.
These seeds spend their first year planted in nurseries where they are carefully tended, watered and sheltered from the sun. Once they grow to between 18 and 24 inches, they’re tough enough to withstand the full sun and are removed from the nursery and planted in the field.
But before they are planted in real nature, the young coffee plants need to grow big and strong in a nursery. Image credit: [jes2uphoto] / Depositphotos.com
Left to their own devices these trees could grow as high as 20 feet but that would make harvesting a little tricky so they are generally pruned to around 8 to 10 feet. It takes between 3 to 5 years before the tree begins to produce coffee berries, also known as cherries because of their shape and red color.
Once ripe, these berries have a bright, deep red skin that covers a fleshy pulp and two little coffee beans in the center encased in a protective skin.
#2 Harvesting And Picking
When coffee plants are tough enough to withstand the full sun they are planted in the field. At a large and flat farm like this they can use machines to automatically harvest the coffee berries. [sidneydealmeida] / Depositphotos.com
Unlike a lot of other cash crops, coffee is normally grown on relatively small pieces of land by small-scale farmers.
When it comes to harvesting it’s a community affair with the whole family, friends and other farmers getting stuck in to help with the picking.
While there is a general time that the berries ripen, they tend to do it in stages which means that you can’t pick the whole lot at once.
This means that you’ve got to go out and pick the ripe berries, come back 8 to 10 days later to pick the next ones, and then come back another 8 to 10 days later to get the stragglers.
Selective And Strip Harvesting
In places like Brazil, where the coffee farms are larger and flatter, they are able to use machines that strip pick the berries from the trees. This is a far less labor intensive process but it doesn’t discriminate between berries that are ripe or not.
Hand picking coffee berries is more labor intensive but allows for a more selective harvest. Only the red berries are being picked. Image credit: [kamonrat] / Depositphotos.com
The majority of coffee farms in other parts of the world are on landscapes that don’t allow for mechanical harvesting. This makes it a fairly labor intensive business and calls for good eyes and nimble fingers.
The advantage of picking by hand is that it allows for a more selective harvest. Being able to pick the berries only once they’re good and ready to go makes for better quality coffee. Unripe berries will have poorly developed beans and these will result in coffee with a bitter taste and sharp odor.
Perfectly ripe berries will have well-formed beans with higher oil and lower acid content. This will give you the smooth, fragrant experience you want from your morning cup of sanity restorative. It’s tough work, though.
On average a good picker will pick around 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day and only 20% of that weight will eventually become coffee.
Only about 20% of picked coffee will probably become coffee.
#3 Sorting And Selecting
These coffee beans are likely picked by machine since the selection includes both red (ripe) and green and yellow (unripe) coffee cherries. There is also a lot of debris, branches and leaves that needs to be removed. Image credit: [haak78] / Depositphotos.com
What we’re really after are the two little beans at the center of the fruit.
To ensure that only the best beans pass onto the next step the coffee cherries are first sorted. There are a few ways to do this.
The simplest sorting that happens is by hand but winnowing the beans or using a large sieve to remove debris, stones, and twigs is also used.
To make absolutely sure that only ripe, good berries are used, the processor may also sort by water immersion. The cherries are thrown into a tank of water and the density difference between ripe and unripe cherries makes the unripe ones float to the top for easy extraction.
Now we’re left with only the best of the best and it’s time to free those beans from the pulp.
#4 Pulping The Cherries
The pulping process is all about getting rid of the skin and the pulped fruit (mucilage) that surrounds the beans.
Depulping is only done if the beans are destined for wet or semi-washed processing, but more on that later.
A pulper machine is used to mechanically remove the skin of the coffee cherry.
Within 24 hours of the cherries being picked, they are put through a depulping machine that removes the skin and most of the pulp. This pulp and skin is usually discarded to be used as compost but some “zero waste” coffee producers use these byproducts to make things like tea from the skins.
Tea from coffee you say?
We must be living in the future. After depulping, the beans still have some pulp attached and are ready for the fermentation process.
The fermentation process is where the microbial reaction of bacteria and yeasts break down the sugars in the mucilage to produce acids.
It’s these acids that will be responsible for adding depth and complexity to the coffee. There are three main ways of processing the harvested cherries through the fermentation stage. Each process has its own logistical pros and cons and the process can have a significant effect on the taste of the final product.
Low Fermentation (Wet Processing)
Coffee beans in the ferment and wash method. [nimon_t] / Depositphotos.com
This is the more modern, quicker process but it uses a lot of water. It has become the most common way of fermenting coffee.
The pulped beans are sorted by size and then thrown into fermentation tanks.
After 12 to 48 hours of fermentation in the tank, the naturally occurring enzymes dissolve the layer of mucilage surrounding the beans.
The beans are then washed thoroughly in fresh water to stop the fermentation process and to remove the last of the pulp.
This leaves the beans covered in just a thin sheath, or parchment, called the endocarp.
This process allows the farmer to carefully control how much fermentation takes place and results in a more consistent coffee with clean and complex flavors.
Medium Fermentation (Semi-washed)
For this method the cherries have their skins removed during the pulping process but instead of completely removing the mucilage, as in the wet process, the sticky flesh layer is left around the beans.
This allows for some measure of fermentation to continue throughout the drying process. This is also known as Honey or Pulped Natural coffee.
There’s actually no “washing” that takes place, semi or otherwise, so you’ll have to ask someone in a lab coat why they call it “semi-washed” because I don’t know.
The end result, though, is a coffee with a fruitier taste and more body than you get from the wet process.
A pulper machine is used to mechanically remove the skin of the coffee cherry.
High Fermentation (Dry process)
This is the oldest method and is still used in many coffee producing countries where water is scarce.
The ripe, freshly picked cherries do not go through the pulping process but are spread out, skin and all, on a large even surface to ferment while drying in the sun.
Because the skins are left on and the cherries aren’t all lying in the same tank each one ferments a little differently to the other.
This makes it a challenge to control the fermentation and get consistency from the coffee. When it’s done right, though, it delivers the most complex and intense flavors with great body.
Regardless of the fermentation process used, the beans need to be dried until they reach a moisture content of around 11%. In the case of wet processing, the fermentation has already taken place and now it’s just a matter of drying the beans.
Coffee beans are raked regularly to get them dry evenly. [thegoatman] / Depositphotos.com
If the cherries went through the semi-wash or dry process then it’s at this point that the beans both dry out and ferment at the same time. The drying is either done mechanically or by laying them out on a large, flat space in the sun.
The cherries are raked regularly throughout the day to get them to dry evenly and to make sure that they don’t develop mold or bacteria. If it looks like it might rain the farmer has to run around frantically to cover the cherries.
It normally takes around 2 to 4 weeks until they dry to the point where they have an 11% to 12% moisture content.
With both the dry and semi-washed process, the beans are in contact with the pulp while drying and they absorb some of the taste characteristics of the fruit and this comes through in the coffee. It can be a risky process because if the cherries aren’t dried carefully and evenly they can be affected by fungi and bacteria which will give the coffee strong off-flavors.
A Unique Drying Process In Indonesia
In Indonesia, where they have high humidity, there is a higher risk of fungi developing during fermentation so they use a unique drying process to produce what is called “wet-hulled” coffee.
They pulp the cherries, dry them for a day, wash the mucilage layer off, dry them until they hit around 40%, ship them to market, dry them to around 25%, wet-hull the beans and then dry them some more until they get to 11%.
Wow! The next time you balk at the price of good Indonesian coffee just bear all of that in mind. Don’t feel too bad for them, though, they have year round summer and great beaches.
Green coffee beans can be stored for years [derepente] / Depositphotos.com
Once properly dried you’re left with parchment coffee which is the beans with just the parchment surrounding them or what’s left of the bits of dried fruit and skin if they were dry processed.
In this form, the coffee can be stored for several months or even years depending on the temperature and humidity. There has been some demand for “aged” green coffees but for the most part, the beans are sent off for milling as soon as possible.
For the time that they are in storage they are put into sacks and stored on pallets in a way that allows for good airflow and that keeps them away from any moisture.
Milling is the final stage in the process to get those little coffee beans out into the open with all the other layers removed.
The two steps in the milling process are hulling and polishing.
The beans are thrown into a machine where they are milled to remove the parchment covering the beans as well as the skin and any leftover dried fruit in the case of dry processed coffee.
They’ve got to do this carefully so that they get all the little bits off without damaging the beans.
A machine removes the parchment covering as well as the skin and leftover dried fruit.
If you’re extra fussy about having your beans shiny then the coffee goes through an optional stage of polishing where any of the silver skin left on the beans is removed. Don’t ask your barista if the beans he’s using were polished.
You’ll just sound pretentious and it doesn’t really make any difference to the taste. Once the hulling process is completed you’re left with beautiful little dried out light brown coffee beans.
Once again the coffee world keeps us wondering who’s actually in charge of nomenclature because they refer to these brown beans as “green coffee”.
An optional stage to make the coffee beans look more appealing is to polish them which removes the silver skin.
After staring sagely at the beans for a while they make an initial judgment of the quality of the coffee based on the appearance of the beans. Then it’s on to the tasting, or cupping.
A sample of the beans will be roasted in a laboratory roaster, ground and then infused in boiling water. After letting it stand for a few minutes the cupper (taster) will then smell and taste the coffee.
He’ll tell you he’s not merely smelling it but “nosing” the coffee and that slurping he does while tasting is entirely necessary.
Regardless, the end result of this theatrics is that the coffee is graded as to its quality and suitability for blending with other coffees.
Fair Trade Organizations are supposed to support coffee farmers by providing them better trading conditions. [photographyMK] / Depositphotos.com
Once graded it’s a matter of planes, trains, and automobiles to get the coffee where it’s needed. Starting in bulk, the green beans will eventually be sold off in smaller batches to different coffee traders and distributors until it finally ends up at your local coffee roastery.
It’s not just about transport, though. The more links in the distribution chain, the further the consumer is removed from the producer. This can result in high margins for the middlemen and a lower price to the farmer.
It can also obscure the ethical standards that were adhered to in the production of the coffee. To combat this, organizations have been set up to promote direct trade and fair trade coffee.
The idea behind direct trade is that the company that sells you the coffee sourced it directly from the producer. They make sure that the farmer gets a better than fair price rather instead of paying that premium to a bunch of middlemen.
Organizations promoting fair trade are more concerned with the economics of sustainable coffee production rather than ethical employment or ecological issues.
They say that they inspect the farms to check labor practices and use of pesticides but they don’t uniformly insist on a firm set of rules in these areas.
The folks involved in Fair Trade coffee have a more holistic view of the production of coffee.
They look beyond just the farmer growing the coffee and have strict requirements regarding labor practices and ecologically friendly agricultural practices. The premise behind both of these organizations is good, but how effective they are as a force for good in coffee production is a contentious issue.
It’s good to remember, though, that how and where your coffee travels on its way to you is more than just a matter of logistics. The fewer links in the distribution chain between you and your coffee, the better chance there is of the guy producing it getting a fair price.
It's time to fire up the roaster and give the coffee beans their unique flavor and aroma. [mavoimages] / Depositphotos.com
When the beans finally get nearer to where they will be consumed, it’s time to fire up the roaster.
This isn’t just a matter of flipping a switch and waiting for the timer to go off once it’s done. Roasting coffee is part science and part art. Inside those raw coffee beans is the potential to make a great cup of coffee.
The roasting process will either realize that potential or leave us wondering what might have….bean. *cough*
The trick is to take the acidity and flavors of each individual batch into account and then regulate the roasting temperature and duration to balance or enhance these. Typically this involves rotating them in a roaster that gets up to around 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
At about 400 degrees Fahrenheit the fragrant oil inside the beans (caffeol) begins to come out of the bean. This stage of the roasting process is called Pyrolysis and is what ultimately gives the coffee its flavor and aroma.
The duration of the roast will result in different characteristics and flavors from the lighter Medium and Full City roasts to the richer and darker Vienna and French Roasts.
Once the roasting process has been completed the beans are cooled by water or air to stop them developing further due to the heat trapped inside them.
So soothing and relaxing...
To protect the beans from air and moisture the packaging is sealed really well so that even if it’s on the shelf for a few weeks the beans will still be fresh once the seal is broken. [derepente] / Depositphotos .com
Once the coffee is roasted the clock starts ticking.
You’ve got a limited time to grind those beans and get a delicious cup of coffee from them. It’s not only time that’s against you but air, moisture and UV rays all conspire to undo all the hard work that’s lead up to this point.
Because of this, the packaging that the roasted beans are stored in is more than just a marketing exercise. To protect the beans from air and moisture the packaging is sealed really well so that even if it’s on the shelf for a few weeks the beans will still be fresh once the seal is broken.
The Purpose Of A One-Way CO2 Valve
The packaging material is also opaque so that the beans are shielded from UV rays. Some coffee packaging will incorporate a one-way valve. Roasted beans will still de-gas for some time after they’ve been roasted so these one-way valves allow the carbon dioxide to escape the bag without allowing any oxygen in.
The problem with this is that as the carbon dioxide leaves the bag it takes volatile aromatics out along with it. Deciding to use these valves is a toss up between the possibility of a bag of coffee exploding from the buildup of gasses and the need to retain as much of those aromatics as possible.
When you open that bag of beans next time imagine the arguments that went on in the coffee roasters boardroom to decide which way they were going to go.
Grinding coffee beans should always happen right before the brewing process. [Apelavi] / Depositphotos .com
When people speak of the “daily grind” it’s not usually a good thing. When it comes to coffee, though, the sound of those grinders preparing the beans for the final stages is music to our ears.
How finely the beans are ground depends on the method that will be used to brew the coffee.
If you’re going to be using a French Press or a vacuum coffee maker then the grind would be fairly coarse. For drip coffee makers you’d need a medium to medium / fine grind.
If you’re using a stove top espresso pot or an espresso machine then the grind would be fine to super fine.
If you’re grinding your own beans and you don’t need too fine a grind then a blade grinder will do the trick and doesn’t cost too much. You need to guesstimate how long to let it grind for until the coffee is as fine as you need it to be. A bit of trial and error and you’re sorted.
Medium, whole beans, and fine ground coffee. [chadamas.me] / Depositphotos .com
For more consistent and finer grinds the beans need to be ground in a burr grinder. The sound of the burr grinder is far easier on the ears if you’ve just woken up and the consistent grind allows for more efficient extraction when brewing.
Also, because the coarseness of the grind is dialed into the settings on the grinder there’s no need to push a button and count “One Mississippi, two Mississippi,...” like you need to with the blade grinder.
Automatic Coffee Makers
After grinding the beans it’s straight to the brewer with them. Whether the coffee is brewed in an espresso machine at your local coffee shop or the drip machine in your kitchen, this is make or break time.
It’s in this final stage where all the hard work that went before either culminates in a cup of amazing coffee or is undone by lousy pressure or wrong water temperature.
Manual Coffee Makers
It’s here where the blood, sweat, and tears of the coffee farmer can be validated by a symphony of flavors, or be dashed by a barista distracted by that cute waitress in the short skirt.
At the end of the brewing stage, after already discarding the fruit of the cherry 10 thousand miles away, finally, the ground up remains of the beans are also thrown into the bin, leaving only the flavors that were once locked inside in the bottom of a dark cup.
Next time you drink a cup of coffee and savor the flavors and aromas, spare a though for the amount of work that went into getting it to you!
After 14 steps and thousands of miles, what was once a little bean inside a berry near the equator is now reduced to a collection of flavors and fragrances contained in a hot beverage that has made civilized life as we know it possible.
Or at least bearable.
The relief, satisfaction, and emotions that a rich and flavorful cup of coffee can result in transcends the olfactory senses and taste buds. As you drink it you’re sure that science has a perfectly bland explanation for what is happening to the synapses in your brain but it feels more like magic. More ethereal.
The next time you’re enjoying your espresso, cold brew, or cortado, spare a thought for the amount of work that went into getting it to you.
Think of the farmer’s aspirations as he tended his seedlings in the nursery.
Think of the worker who suddenly remembered that it was time to rush off to rake those beans drying in the sun.
Or the roaster wondering if he should risk let the beans roast just a little longer to get the taste he was after.
And as you consider the number of steps it took to get the coffee in your cup, as you savor the flavors and the mouthfeel, you may not think that 15 steps are that many after all.
You could be forgiven for wondering that it didn’t take a whole lot more.
If you liked this article and know someone who appreciates coffee as much as you do then please share it with them by clicking the buttons below.
Coffee lover and Dad on a budget. Since the wishes of my beautiful wife and two charming kids are of course of much higher priority than my own ones, I always keep an eye out for coffee products which give me the biggest bang for the buck!